Cycles And Turns With Johnette Napolitano Of Concrete Blonde- An Interview

October 6, 2011 by Chris Grosso

Johnette Napolitano– Singer, Songwriter, Tattoo Artist, Psychic, Fashionista, Lover of Life.

Namaste– I honor that place in you where the Universe resides. And when I am in that place in me, and you are in that place in you, we are One.

I conducted this interview with Johnette on 1.18.11 but with cosmic universal life events being what they are, it’s not until now I’ve been able to transcribe and post this. It was all of two minutes into our conversation that the word Namaste resonated within me about the experience I was having. Johnette is a truly amazing and inspirational soul who should not only be celebrated for her work in Concrete Blonde, but also for her passion for life and it’s many mysteries. Enjoy.

The Johnette Napolitano Interview

TIS: So here we are roughly 25 years after you released your first Self Titled album in ’86, and minus the occasional hiatus, Concrete Blonde has been really good about releasing albums every few years. What do you contribute the long standing success and function-ability of the band too?

JN: I’d say respecting and being sensitive to the natural rhythm of things. You know I was just thinking yesterday, and I’m glad you’re a spiritualist because it’s hard to talk to people about this stuff sometimes, but I was just thinking yesterday about a time when we were driving to AZ and we’d had a great gig and really nice time. It was just the three of us and I like it like that. It’s nice. We don’t get to spend all that much time together. Gabrielle our drummer has kids and we live in the desert and I go off to New Orleans quite a lot so it was really nice to spend time together like that. I relate it to the same way the planets revolve around the sun. Some of them revolve quickly and see one another all the time and some only come back every nine years but it always seems to be a very natural thing. I’m very sensitive to that.

As a matter of fact, that’s a discussion we just had this week.  Records builds up and art builds up because the experience builds up and your emotions build up and you metabolize a certain kind of experience. You have cycles, and the cycles have turns and it seems like we’ve paid attention to those cycles so when we have come back together it has been very organic. We’re really big on feeling natural about what we do because there’s no other point. When you’re young and the pressure is on, you really have to make your mark. You’re constantly butting your head like a ram every which way. Some people would say we were tremendously successful and some people who say we weren’t. It’s all about your value system. I’m very happy with the life of a band we’ve chosen to be. I think since last year’s tour we’re really comfortable with who we are at this place in time.

TIS: That’s great. And the tour you mentioned from last year was the Bloodletting anniversary tour correct?

JN: Yeah. It was really intense.

TIS: Can you elaborate on said intensity?

JN: Well it was the kind of thing that was only going to come around once obviously, so we had people calling us about it, because we don’t mark the calendars for things like that. So these people would call and say it’s been 20 years since Bloodletting and it’s a big deal and that we should tour playing the record front to back and that didn’t really appeal to me. The biggest thing at that time was that my Dad had just passed away and that was massive, it’s still very massive for me. So the fact was my Dad had died and he had an older sister and I wanted to make sure she was ok. Getting more cosmic about it, there are two things about my father that will always stand out to me, one of which was a total Hunter S. Thompson trip to New Orleans. My Dad was a biker (but we rented a car) and just blew it down to New Orleans and partied like crazy and blew back in 48 hours and it was just classic. So after he passed I swore that’d I’d spend a week out of every month in New Orleans for the rest of my life. I’ve developed quite an interesting and wonderful family down there of artists and eclectic people. New Orleans has always been a really cosmic place and it keeps things interesting for me.

My father’s been working overtime since he passed and has been pointing me in some directions I really needed pointing towards. The band knew it was a hard thing and we were all very tight and it was nice because there was no pressure. We knew people would be there to hear the songs. It wasn’t like the old days where I’d be stressed out about playing a new record and hoping people liked it. After you have some success, the most difficult competition is with yourself. Never mind anyone else, you need to better your last effort no matter what it is and that’s where the pressure comes from, within. So this time there wasn’t any of that and we were really able to enjoy ourselves, being faced with the ultimate reality of mortality. It was really a blessing to go out and see how happy people were when we played. It was really beautiful and necessary and it was a really nice tour.

TIS: That sounds like an amazing universal experience. So now that the tour is finished you guys have a new album you’re working on. Can you tell me about that?

JN: Yeah, that’s interesting too as it started out as some solo stuff but fell into the same way we make all our records. I’ve been going into the studio with Gabriel and working stuff out with him as well as some guests. So towards the end of last year, after the tour, I started looking at the processes that had worked the best for us in the past. It’s a simple formula which led us to starting with songs we thought sounded best, then going into the studio in LA and working some overdubs on the tracks. We’re really excited. Things are going at a really good pace. We’re enjoying not having to be on the road nine months out of the year. I think we’re in a good balanced place where we all have our personal fulfillment and get our energy from the right people in our lives so we’re not susceptible to as many of the sharks we were when we were young.

TIS: So being at the place you are now do you feel like you have more freedom while recording in the studio?

JN: Well we actually always did have that freedom and that’s why we didn’t get signed sooner. We had offers before Miles signed us to IRS and the only reason that we signed with Miles was because he was the only one smart enough to hear that we didn’t need messing with. When he heard it, he said it reminded him of The Police and he flipped out but every other asshole with a suit on behind a desk said we couldn’t right songs, Jim couldn’t play guitar…I mean these were huge people in the record industry and it was really hard on me.

I remember collapsing one night on the floor of the van because our drummer flipped out during a big showcase with a lot of execs there. He flipped out, shaved his head and started talking like DeNiro in Taxi Driver. It was so fucked up. We knew he was a little off but we had no idea when it came down to it he’d go all the way, he’d go postal. So I cried all the way home and felt like we were never going to get off the ground. The major labels wanted us to do covers and it’s not that weren’t being uncooperative but we weren’t capable of being anything other than what we were.

When we played to people, they really loved it and I didn’t understand why labels wanted us to change. We did do the seven months on the road thing back in the day for $700 a night, sleeping in the van, through the snow, CT- thank you very much, ME- Thank you very much, Syracuse- Thank you very much, haha. But we did do that for many years and got better at what we did and became more committed regardless of whether the industry was acknowledging us or not. At the end of the day we really grew to respect one another and our talents collectively. I actually had to learn how to play bass because we couldn’t keep a bass player and nobody wanted to be in our stupid band. So it all took a long time. I was so neurotic about my playing to the point where I finally woke up one day and realized I’ve been doing this for twenty years so, I may as well relax.

TIS: Sure, I can relate to the van tours and being neurotic about one’s musical abilities all too well. So you’ve already shared some crazy stuff but is there a particular crazy tour experience that stands out above all others?

JN: That is a hard thing to fucking think of because trust me, there are soooo many. I don’t even know where to start. I actually wrote a little book that I’m working on getting converted to iBook and Kindle and in it I talk about how there’s so many tour stories. I guess something from the top of my head are the early days when they wouldn’t let me on stage because I didn’t have a laminate, because in those days girls weren’t really leaders of bands. Another pretty good one was when we were on our way to a show in a taxi. We were all in the back seat, in St Louis I think, on the way to the gig and the taxi driver was obviously having a bad day because he was mumbling and getting irritated and pissed. Then he started yelling at cars and we were like Jesus and started screaming “You guys see this guy? You see him!? I’ll fucking kill him. I’ve got a .45 under the seat. I’ll fucking kill him.” So at that point, we were like, hey man it’s cool, all the while trying to keep our shit together. There’s even been a few recent ones too but they’re recent enough that I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. It just never ends. Spinal Tap isn’t a movie for no reason. It’s rock n roll. That’s just what it is, controlled chaos basically.

TIS: So I’ve heard Concrete Blonde music used on various shows and films such as The Sopranos, The Shield and Pump Up The Volume. Can you tell me if those were conscious choices on Concrete Blondes part, or if the label owned the rights and just used them?

JN: Well I have to admit that Pump Up The Volume had nothing to do with us. MCA had the soundtrack to Pump Up The Volume and wanted us to record that Leonard Cohen song you hear in the movie. That’s one of the perks of being involved with companies that have a lot going on. So they wanted us to do that cover because they didn’t think there was a hit on Bloodletting. They actually wanted the Leonard Cohen cover to be on Bloodletting, but I didn’t want that because the album to me was conceptual. I’d written quite a bit of  it in New Orleans and as far as I was concerned, the record was done. Some people may say we should have done it but we stand by our decision. It was still a hit and we still play it out. Leonard Cohen actually sent me roses after we released it. I think it turned a lot of people on to Leonard who hadn’t heard him before. But I can’t take credit for it because it was actually an assignment that worked out for everyone. Regarding the other shows you mentioned, EMI controls a lot of the old stuff, so for certain things like The Sopranos, they go through EMI, but it essentially depends on the song, how old it is, who put it out, all sorts of stuff. We have the rights to most of our stuff now so that’s good. 

TIS: I see. So are you working on anything outside of Concrete Blonde, musically or otherwise?

JN: I’ve been working with a flamenco group in New Orleans and that’s fantastic. We’re actually shooting in Preservation Hall soon and that will be the first time flamenco will have ever been performed there as far as anyone knows, so I’m really excited about that. That’s one of the things my Dad had hooked me up with as it’s been one of my lifetime loves. Originally, I actually wanted to be in fashion but couldn’t because of our family situation and couldn’t further my education in that area, but I just finished a sewing correspondence course and passed it and am working on my final. I only work in reclaimed or remnants of organic bamboo, vintage etc. I’m also going to tattoo school and I’m really excited about that. I think that’ll be fun.

TIS: Right on. What sparked your interested in that?

JN: Well I’ve been drawing my whole life. The first memory I have actually is of drawing. I have quite a few tattoos myself and my Dad had quite a few. Since he’s passed away he’s been putting me back to what I liked to do as a kid, when we were home and I was young. It’s a very strange set of circumstances. He knows I’ve wanted to work more at home because I have five acres here and want to start harboring animals and help rescues, which means I’d have to be home more. One of the things that really affected me when my Dad died was the total denial of it. My Dad worked really hard and he was a bad ass. His last words in the hospital bed were that he had to get up and go back to work. He just wore himself down and I see my aunt doing the same thing but I don’t want to do that. I’m an artist. I can write, do my book, write & record music, the things I enjoy doing which also calm me down. I’m also a professional psychic reader which I’ve done for many years. I want to make sure that when I’m older I can keep myself together and enjoy life, a simple life. I enjoyed all these things when I was younger but then rock n roll got in the way. I wanted to go to Art school but there was no way because I had to make a living. Every time I sang, people paid attention, so I knew that was where it was going to be for me. You never know what life is going to do, it’s a trip.

TIS: Well this has been a real pleasure Johnette. I appreciate you sharing so candidly about everything.

JN: Absolutely. It’s a really cool looking website you have. I actually twittered about it. I just started a Twitter account yesterday haha. So let’s follow one another, haha.

TIS: Sounds like a plan.

JN: We’ll all feel like we’re being followed, haha.






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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.